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Afghanistan: Captives of the Warlords

2001 (produced 2000, updated 2001)
Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th St., Suite 901, New York, NY 10016; 212-806-4980
Produced by Detroit Public Television, Fast Forward Films and Lark International
Directed by Arthur Kent
VHS, color, 52 min.
High School - Adult
Anthropology, Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Area Studies, Human Rights

Reviewed by Terry Plum, Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Boston, MA


Afghanistan: Captives of the Warlords is a recent entry among a number of documentaries issued about Afghanistan and the Taliban. This film gives an historical picture of how the people of Afghanistan have fared during twenty-plus years of war, from the invasion of the Soviet Army to the Taliban, stopping short of the assassination of the United Front leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States. The documentary was created by Arthur Kent, a former NBC correspondent who has won two Emmy Awards for his coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and the anti-Ceausescu uprising in Bucharest. He concluded his relationship with NBC with a successful suit, described in part in his book Risk and Redemption. He has also made documentaries about Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and hosts the History Channel’s History Undercover and History’s Mysteries.

The “warlords” of the title are primarily the Taliban. The film argues that because of the decades of war culminating in the Taliban take-over, the Afghan people have been “separated at gunpoint from custom, belief and justice.” Thus, the people of Afghanistan are victims or captives of the Taliban. More importantly, they are victims of intervention by other countries that seek to further their own national ends. Among the power-broker nations using Afghanistan are the former Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran, but interestingly, not Iraq. According to Mr. Kent, the Taliban were created and are supported by Pakistan. Relationships between al Queda and the Taliban are not discussed, although a group of foreign supporters of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan are filmed. The film states that if the flow of arms to Afghanistan were halted, if foreign intervention ceased, then peace and by implication the true Afghan culture would again flourish.

The production qualities of the film are excellent. The film uses flashbacks to the 1980s to contrast with the present realities of the Taliban. The editing is usually clear and the viewer does not become lost in the frequent chronological switches. This reviewer noted two minor annoyances. The volume of the background music is too obviously manipulated for the sake of drama, and the Taliban decrees are read in a portentous, non-Afghan accent, perhaps to reinforce the sense of their power over the people of Afghanistan.

This documentary has apparently been well received. According to Skywriter Communications, Afghanistan: Captives of the Warlords has “won the Gold World Medal for national/international affairs documentaries at the New York Festivals, and a CINE Golden Eagle from the CINE organization in Washington, D.C.”

Mr. Kent conducts a limited number of brief interviews, primarily with middle class Afghan refugees in Pakistan or with aid workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross. The photography of the film is technically excellent, and because he used a secret camera, the shots of Taliban Afghanistan are unique. He apparently had no ethical issues with secretly filming people. The pictures of the people, the soldiers, the children and the landscape are remarkable.

The film has an interesting ahistorical center to its historical narrative. A sense of history is provided by Mr. Kent’s considerable Afghanistan experience, which covers twenty years. However, the people in the film are representative, emblematic of a situation, and not actually individuals. The visual shots of Afghans are quick with fast fades. The situations are quickly described and then left. If, as the film presents, the Afghans are victims, then all victims have essentially the same story, except for differences in class, age or gender. Thus, the viewers see women, children and fighters, but camera work is quick. One face fades into another. Each face is not an individual, but a token, a marker, of a situation. All are victims, either of the Taliban or of outside nation states.

Contemporary anthropology, most noticeably since the publication of Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography by James Clifford and George Marcus in 1986, has struggled with the placement of the narrator in accounts of other people. What is the role of the narrator or ethnographer in the study of other peoples, and how should the role be made clear to the readers? The positioning of the narrator is a difficult problem in ethnography, and there has been much discussion about power relations and representation as journalists, anthropologists, and travelers try to sort out their place in the reporting of other groups.

Mr. Kent’s solution is to place himself at the center, and all access to Afghans is only through him. He is the narrator, producer, and photographer, except when he is the object of the camera. He is the head of Fast Forward Films, one of the producers of this documentary. Mr. Kent narrates the film, and the personal pronoun “I” is a standard construction. The first line of the film uses “I” twice, and the film ends when he is asked to leave the country. The film’s historical sweep is defined by Mr. Kent’s personal history in Afghanistan, from 1980. The narrator is always the focus of the film either implicitly or directly. Because Mr. Kent is constantly in the viewer’s way, it becomes tempting to judge him instead of the film, and there are some unfortunate moments. Clichés regularly substitute for conclusions: “…the land that peace forgot,” “…desperate existence on the ragged margins of global politics,“ “…each day could be their last,” and “for them the camera is something from another world.” This last statement verges on an imperial nostalgia for the unchanging native, as are generalizations about the warm hospitality of the Afghani people, the Afghanistan to which Mr. Kent was apparently accustomed in earlier visits. This warm hospitality appears to be part of a traditional Afghanistan, the loss of which the film regrets.

There is little effort to sort out the confusing, and at times crucial, differences between various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The interviewees and the portraits are not identified by ethnicity or differences, but serve as representatives of some sort of pan-Afghan resistance to the Taliban or as members of victim classes. For example, although the film notes the support Pakistan has given the Taliban, the Pashtun relationships between the two are not explored, nor are the ethnic differences between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The Taliban are recognized to have come out of the Pakistan madrassas or religious schools, but it is not at all clear that these events resulted from Pakistan foreign policy or that the Pakistan government could even control it. The different traditions among ethnic groups are not complicated by the documentary. Whatever customs survived the abuses of the Taliban have now been so thoroughly changed by the U.S. incursions and the clean up by numerous NGOs and relief organizations, a return to a pre-war traditional existence is no longer possible.

As noted in the review of The Taliban Legacy, librarians should look to Afghanistan: Exporting the Taliban Revolution (1999), Behind the Veil: Afghan Women under Fundamentalism (2001), Afghanistan Revealed (2001), and Afghanistan: State of the Taliban (2001) for alternative choices.

This documentary is flawed in interesting ways. The data presented by the reporter is important, the photography striking, and the approach, comparing past and present through a personal lens, is unusual. The creator of the film is far too much in evidence, and his biases get in the way. The film feeds a victimization interpretation of events, both in message and in medium. However, despite these reservations, this documentary is recommended for libraries seeking to document completely this terrible time in Afghanistan history.